As a lover of all things handmade, I seek out the work of skilled craftspeople when I travel, bringing home souvenirs with a cultural and historical connection to my vacation locale — sashiko-stitched bags from Japan, Harris Tweed jackets from Scotland, embroidered shirts from Mexico. These iconic crafts represent skills passed down through generations and artisans produce them to keep their craft alive and to put food on the table.
While I believe in using my vacation dollars to help centuries-old traditions flourish, I sometimes wonder if my support keeps craftspeople from branching out. When it pays for Venice glassblowers to make paperweights, can they afford to explore other creative avenues? By financially supporting iconic craft, am I stifling innovation?
On a trip to Oaxaca last month, I met artisans who have given their centuries-old craft a twist. Woodcarving is an ancient tradition in Mexico, but little more than 60 years ago, thanks to interest from art dealers and tourists, as well as support for folk art from the Mexican government, some woodworkers morphed their masks carved for feasts and festivals into alebrijes, the hand-carved, brightly painted figures that have become a tradition in their own right.
Three small, rural towns near Oaxaca City support themselves primarily through the creation and sale of alebrijes. In Arrazola, a village of 1,250, I met Saúl Aragón. Saúl started his alebrije career during his junior high school years in the mid-1980s, when he learned to paint the figures carved by his older brother. By 1990, at the peak of demand for alebrijes, six members of Saúl’s family, including his three elder brothers, were creating the whimsical carvings. (Although signed by a single artist, most alebrijes are the work of multiple people. Typically but not exclusively, men carve, children sand, and women paint.)
The wood of the native copal tree is a favorite of carvers, who whittle it while it’s still green. I marveled that even with multidimensional appendages like a lizard’s undulating tail or wings that flare from an owl’s back, alebrijes often are carved from a single piece of wood. The shape of that piece sometimes suggests which animal emerges, while encyclopedias of animals, magazine clippings, and critters from carvers’ daily lives — dogs, cats, pigs, roosters, and lizards — provide additional inspiration. A newly carved piece dries for three of four days before it’s sanded and painted with a solid color base coat. Once that dries, intricate designs are added; fine brushes, a nail head, or even a toothpick may be used to apply tiny dots of color. Artisans typically use acrylic paints, though some are experimenting with natural dyes.
Alebrijes aficionados recognize the individual styles of better-known carvers and painters. Martin Melchor and Melinda Ortega are known for their fanciful creatures enacting improbable scenes — dogs riding bikes, alligators on stilts. Maria Jiménez paints delicate and intricate imagery on the backs of pigs and peacocks carved by her brothers. Several people told me that Miguel Santiago is a true artist; he’s been carving for 33 years and his slightly surreal canvases dot the walls of his shop, along with carved masks painted with the natural pigments he’s exploring.
While imagination and skill are reflected in the carvers’ creations, there also is a keen awareness of what the market will bear. Artisans take note when new creatures attract buyers and carve accordingly—during my visit, the octopus was a new star. Carvers are happy to take commissions as well. An exhibition in the Oaxaca library featured 25 alebrijes commissioned over many years by a local bookstore owner — each creature was reading a book.
When demand was at its peak from 1985 to 2000, entire villages supported themselves by carving and painting alibrejes in home workshops. But Oaxacan civil unrest in 2006 and the current recession reduced tourism and slowed sales of alebrijes. The effect in the carving villages is noticeable. In the past, about 200 families in Arrazola and San Martín Tilcajete supported themselves, at least in part, with the creation of alebrijes. Today only 110 families do. Some carvers supplement their income by growing corn and beans. Artist Miguel Santiago cuts hair. Others, including three of Saúl Arragón’s brothers, have been forced to leave their villages and families to search for work. Those who remain continue to carve, paint, and sell alebrijes as best they can in a time when the peso’s value is low.
Perhaps because their tradition is a young one, the carvers are willing to try new means to make it work. For the past five years, formerly competing artisan families in Arrazola have joined forces through Ecoalebrijes. Saúl Aragón is the president of the group, which is working to preserve copal trees for future carvers through a reforestation project that plants 2,000 to 3,000 trees annually. In addition, group members expand their reach by sharing marketing efforts. And Saúl recently opened an Etsy shop, where he sells alebrijes created by Ecoalebrijes member families.
While these efforts may not have been handed down through generations, they serve traditional values. Saúl told me that he enjoys painting, finds carving relaxing, and takes pride that his skills continue to improve. He has learned a tremendous amount about the biology of the copal forests. But most satisfying to him is helping others through the Ecoalebrijes organization, and the way that alebrijes support the members of his own family who carve and paint alongside him. “Family was important to my grandfather and my father, and it’s important to me,” says Saúl.
Knowing this, I was taken aback when I heard an American who lives in Oaxaca speak disparagingly of alebrijes as “nontraditional,” as though their lack of a centuries-old heritage made them somehow less worthy of admiration. While I appreciate the myriad traditional crafts of Oaxaca, supporting a family with skilled craftsmanship seems anything but nontraditional. I left Oaxaca with a suitcase full of alebrijes and a deep admiration for these artisans who are keeping their families fed and their villages intact with imagination and innovation.
A lifelong sewer/knitter and former weaver/spinner, Linzee Kull McCray, a.k.a. lkmccray, is a writer and editor living in Iowa. She feels fortunate to meet and write about people, from scientists to stitchers, who are passionate about their work. Her freelance writing appears in Quilts and More, Stitch, UPPERCASE, American Patchwork and Quilting and more. For more textile musings, visit her blog.